February 4
by Vivian Sheperis

Lackley was exhausted, but he kept running. He stumbled over a rock in the trail and careened into a thorny bush before regaining his balance. The barks of the dogs pursuing him were growing louder.

Now was the time to bite into that little black vial under his tongue, but it was still in his left breast pocket. “Damn.” While running and negotiating the rocks and brush, he managed to fish around his pocket and hook the deadly vessel with his forefinger. He dragged it into his fist and gripped it, his one escape to oblivion.

It took several leaps at breakneck speed over the ruts and piles of dirt for Lackley to get up the nerve to bring the lethal object to his mouth. Only when howls and snarls of snapping teeth were yards away did he open his lips to admit the final solution. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

He raised his cupped palm with the poison to his mouth just as he stepped with his left foot onto nothingness and tumbled headlong into a cavernous pit, landing on a soft pile of sand. High above him the hounds ringed the edge of the abyss, salivating and yelping their disappointment. Lackley still held tightly the little bottle and lay there, panting, unwilling to trust his unexpected escape and ready to blackout in case this lucky break was an illusion.

A whisper came from the darkness, “No need for that, now.”

He turned his head in the direction of the voice and saw a glowing, silver Deva gliding toward him from a large bright opening in the wall of the crater. Beyond her he could see several figures in robes of emerald green and violet, which reflected a peculiar luminescence.

“I am Marianna and will relieve you of that black vial for which there will be no use anymore.” Her hand swooped the container from his palm.

“And we will replace that ridiculous name Lackley with something more fitting for your eternal honor as guardian among us, for you have shown courage and fortitude above all humans in eluding the hounds of hell. Welcome,  Gandock.”

Gandock took her hand and rose to stand before the entrance to his new life. At least a dozen figures drifted from the portal to greet him. They seemed to float above the ground. Each had a robe of shining hue, and it was not clear where the figure ended and the garment began. First crimson, then chartreuse, fuchsia, and indigo, parading every shade of the spectrum. It was apparent he had worm-holed his way into an alternate universe where the laws of physics he knew did not apply. In fact, he felt himself becoming more subtle and fine, less cumbersome and gross. He thought,“I am graced with honor, as Marianna said. I proved I could outwit and outsmart those hounds. Rudolfo thought he had gotten his revenge, but I showed him! To hell with the court and his magicians. I am the superior one.”

He reached out and touched the hand of the creature of light. Her eyes were almond- shaped and the pupils glowed like opalescent pearls. A gentle smile and nod of the head beckoned him to follow her back from where she and the others had emerged.

As Gandock approached the oval entrance, he could feel his feet move with sudden lightness, and he hyperventilated with the expectation of eternal bliss. All the humiliating fear and the chase were worth this moment, welcoming him to a life with these ethereal beauties, honored to guard them, as he had been told.

Still holding her hand, he stepped his left foot into the entry, then his right, as she led him into the center of another round, but much smaller, cave. Gently withdrawing her hand, Marianna glided and faded away from him as mysteriously as she had first appeared.

Gandock stood there in the pale amber glow. He looked around in anticipation for the next triumphant step into the grandeur of his new life and saw two long ramps leading from behind him down along the walls to the center where he stood alone. He slowly turned and raised  his eyes. Directly above his head, standing on a ledge over the doorway through which he had entered, and from where the ramps began, he saw a long row of bared fangs.

Their low growls were just starting.